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Monday’s game shows how Mookie Betts can steal MVP

Alright, so it wasn’t technically a stolen base, but Mookie Betts’ heads-up baserunning could be the key to the game’s most prestigious individual award.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Monday night’s game against the Orioles was not Mookie Betts’ most explosive performance of the season. While Chris Young was going 4-for-4 and blasting homers along with Ortiz and Hanley, Betts was putting up a 1-for-5 night with a double and a run scored. Hell, with a .604 OPS in August, you could certainly say he’s in a slump.

Still, if you’re making a campaign for Mookie Betts, MVP, then Monday’s game should probably run pretty damn early in that highlight reel.

No, it’s not the most statistically impressive game, but...

A) How many people are really oblivious to the fact that Betts is playing at an elite level? He’s in the upper-echelon of AL players based on his bat alone, and brings excellent defense and baserunning (more on that later) to the table, leaving him as one of the game’s top-five players by Fangraphs’ valuations. He’s hit 30 homers, stolen 20 bases, scored 100, and driven in 100. He’s obviously excellent whether you like stats that require complicated spreadsheets to calculate, or the sort that show up on old baseball cards.


B) Mookie Betts is not going to be crowned MVP based on statistics alone. At least not the kind that show up in the box scores.

Betts is great, but he’s not the best, and it’s hard to really question that. Mike Trout exists! He’s hitting .321/.437/.564, and has proven himself to be a strong defender throughout the years. If you’re really insistent on the whole “MVP must come from a playoff team” thing, then you can start looking at Josh Donaldson (.284/.400/.552), whose place under Mookie in the WAR valuations could largely be ascribed to a statistic in UZR that will openly admit it’s imprecise, particularly in smaller samples (which, for UZR, a single season counts as).

No, if there’s an MVP award waiting for Betts at the end of the season, it’s going to be the result of plays like the one we saw on Monday, when Betts saw Steve Pearce stop paying attention in the outfield after Hanley Ramirez’ single and bolted for home the second he sensed weakness.

It wasn’t the most important play of the game by any stretch of the imagination. The Sox already had the runs they would need to win the game given the way Price ended up pitching, and Mookie would have scored anyways eventually. But it very much is the sort of play that could sway voters to look beyond a few deficiencies in terms of average, on-base percentage, and slugging to give Betts the nod.

And, while it doesn’t really show up in the box score, and didn’t matter here, that sort of play is emblematic of one of the most quietly impressive parts of Mookie Betts’ game: baserunning. Obviously, Betts is not Billy Hamilton. But what’s amazing is that he’s only been worth a few runs less on the basepaths despite coming in with fewer than half of his stolen bases. Certainly, Betts can swipe his fair share, and with 23 steals in 26 attempts, he’s been the model of efficiency—an area which can sink some high-volume base stealers.

The key, obviously, is that there’s a lot more to baserunning than steals. It’s something that Betts showed us from the very beginning, too. Who remembers this play from one of his first games with the Red Sox?

Or this one from 2015?

Here he is earlier this year against, yes, the Orioles, scoring from second on a ground ball to the catcher!

Mookie Betts doesn’t just steal bases or go first-to-third on base hits. He’s become the absolute master of the heads-up play, and perhaps the most intelligent baserunner in baseball. Honestly, thinking back, I can’t come up with a player who seems to punish the other team’s small, fundamental mistakes with the regularity that Betts does, and does it without ever really running into an out and looking foolish. Betts isn’t taking gambles, he’s just taking advantage.

If Betts has to win over voters in both the hearts and minds categories, this is the sort of thing that will hit both targets. On the minds side of things, Betts’ baserunning numbers are what separates him from Josh Donaldson, Jose Altuve, and Manny Machado among players on winning teams. And when it comes to hearts, well, there’s no better way to win that vote than through smart, high-effort plays like this. Not only is Betts not taking any plays off, he’s actually become the poster boy for why it’s important to play hard, always.

If Betts is actually going to take this thing down, he’s going to have to start hitting again after a couple quiet weeks. At the end of the day, going cold for the biggest push of the year would sink all but the most run-away candidates, and there’s plenty of competition this year. But if he does, and if the horrific record of the Angels can keep the award from Trout, then plays like the one Betts made on Monday are going to be what keeps him in the race, and perhaps pushes him above and beyond the players with better numbers at the plate.